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Despite Bumper Harvests, Lester Brown’s Sky is Still Falling

October 1, 2004

Volume 6 / Number 30

Dear Colleague:

Lester Brown is at it again.  The world’s grain harvests have for four years fallen short of consumption, the founder of the Worldwatch Institute recently told the Christian Science Monitor.  These shortfalls have pulled down the world’s grain reserves to only 59 days of consumption.  Is mass starvation just around the corner, or is the inventor of the grain reserves shell game, as my late colleague James A. Miller called it, merely up to his old tricks?

Steven W. Mosher


Despite Bumper Harvests, Lester Brown’s Sky is Still Falling

Back in 1965, Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute wrote that the food problem emerging in the less-developing regions of the world may be one of the most nearly insoluble problems facing man over the next few decades.1

Wrong.  The battle against hunger and malnutrition is being won.  World food production continues to increase more rapidly than population.  Over the course of the eighties, grain production per person increased by more than 5 percent.  Since then, it has increased another 5 percent per person.  The best measure of global food security is the number of calories available per person per day.  This number, it turns out, has been moving steadily upward for decades, climbing from 2,371 in 1968 to 2,800 in 1999.  We are already growing more than enough food to keep the world’s population well fed, if that food were evenly distributed.  And we are not far from producing the 3,000 calories per day required by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in a free market, where access to food depends upon being able to purchase it.  The number of people worldwide suffering from acute malnutrition has fallen by three-quarters since 1960.

The doomsayers, led by Lester Brown, continue to reject such views as cornucopian.  Since global grain production and yield per acre continue to climb, how does he justify such pessimism?  Often by resorting to what my late colleague, James A. Miller, called the grain reserves shell game, that’s how.2  For decades Lester Brown has argued that the best measure of global food security was the number of days of consumption represented by global grain reserves. 

This days of consumption figure is tailor-made for the media: it is instantly grasped and makes for screaming headlines such as this one from the generally staid New York Times, Expert Says World Has 27 Days of Food!3  Today Brown is still at it, telling the Christian Science Monitor that the world’s grain reserves have shrunk to only 59 days of consumption, which he maintains is the lowest level in 30 years.4

Wrong again.  Such a calculation is beset with problems, not the least of which is that there is no generally agreed upon figure for global grain reserves.  Harvest times vary by crop, season, climate, and hemisphere, just to name a few variables.  The very USDA figures that Brown uses for his calculations, warns the Department of Agriculture, are *an aggregate of differing local marketing years and should not be construed as representing world stock levels at a fixed point in time.*5 (italics added) Moreover, grains provide (1) only about half of mankind’s food needs and (2) a fair percentage of this is fed to livestock.  But meat and dairy products are entirely excluded from Brown’s calculations. 

The difficulty, not to say the inanity, of calculating global grain reserves perhaps explains why Brown’s figures have been wildly inconsistent over the years.  In 1974 he cried that we had only 26 days of food left, but in a 1988 retrospective report, he admitted that the real 1974 figure had been 61 days.  His estimate for 1976 was a belt-tightening 31 days, which by 1988 had somehow ballooned to 79 days.  In 1980 he told us that food prospects were again precarious, with only a 40-day supply on hand, but a few years later he said it had actually been 71 days.  As James Miller remarked, What is one to make of the following *days of consumption figures for the year 1974, all of which Brown issued at various times over a 14 year period: 26 or 27 days (1974); 33 days (1975); 40 days (1981); 43 days (1987); and 61 days (1988).*6 What I make of them, Jim, is that Brown fudges the grain figures for maximum media impact, then gradually floats them up to their real level years later when he thinks no one is looking.

In his more sober moments, Brown acknowledges that the market sets strict upper limits on world grain stocks.  In 1987 he even wrote that *…when stocks exceed 80 days-the situation in 1985 and 1986-world grain prices are severely depressed and government treasuries suffer as they try to support farm prices and maintain farm income …competition for markets intensifies and trade wars develop.  The cost of carrying unnecessarily large stocks becomes burdensome.*  And, one might add, as the marketing, storing, and shipping of grain becomes more efficient, production corresponds more exactly to supply.  Grain reserves are declining over time not because consumption is outpacing production, as Brown would have it, but because there is no point in storing grain for years on end in an era of increasing abundance.

And abundance, not shortfalls, is our future, says Nobel-prize winning agronomist Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution.  Having helped feed India’s billion, he predicts no difficulty in feeding a world of 10 billion:  The world has the technology-either available or well-advanced in the research pipeline-to feed a population of 10 billion people. … Even without using advances in plant biotechnology, yields can be increased by 50 to 70 percent in much of the Indian subcontinent, Latin America, the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and by 100 to 150 percent in much of sub-Saharan Africa, providing political stability is maintained [and] bureaucracies that destroy entrepreneurial initiative are reined in.7

Instead of tapering off, agricultural productivity appears set to make a major leap forward based on the genetic engineering of food plants.  One example of potential gains in crop yields comes from the effort to produce aluminum-tolerant grains.  Aluminum affects a third of the world’s cropland, particularly where acidic soils make the aluminum soluble, allowing it to be taken up by the roots of plants.  Varieties of corn which produce 10 tons per hectare in the absence of aluminum are so stunted by its presence that they yield only about 2 tons per hectare.8  Borlaug predicts another 50 percent increase in yields over the next 35 years from this and other advances in genetic engineering-if their development is not hindered by anti-science activism.9

Or by the wolf-crying of Lester Brown, whose solution to his imaginary food shortage is, as he also told the Christian Science Monitor, to encourage population control in developing countries.


1 Lester R. Brown, Population growth, food needs, and production problems, World Population and Food Supplies 1989, ASA special publication 6:17-20, Madison, WI, American Society of Agronomy.

2 James A. Miller, Lester Brown’s ‘Grain Reserves’ Shell Game, PRI Review, Vol. 1, No. 4 (July/August 1991), p.1-4.

3 The New York Times, 24 August 1974, p. 2.

4 David R. Francis, Despite Bumper Harvest, World’s Cupboard Grows Bare, Christian Science Monitor, e-mail from Negative Population Growth, 27 September 2004.

5 This sentence has appeared in every USDA grain report for decades.  See USDA Foreign Agriculture Circular-Grains, FG 3-75, 4 February 1975, note 8, p.2, and note 1, page 22; and USDA World Grain Situation and Outlook, FG 1-91, January 1991, note 7, p. 34.

6 James A. Miller, Lester Brown’s ‘Grain Reserves’ Shell Game. PRI Review, Vol. 1, No. 4 (July/August 1991), p. 2.

7 Norman Borlaug, Feeding a World of 10 Billion People, Global Warming and Other Eco-Myths, Competitive Enterprise Institute, Ronald Bailey, Editor, 2002, p. 29-60.

8 Marcia Barinaga, Making plants aluminum tolerant, Science, Vol. 276, No. 5318, 6 June 1997.  See also Ron Brunton, The Myth of World Food Shortages, PRI Review, Vol. 9, No. 2 (February/March 1999), p. 6.

9 Norman Borlaug, Feeding a World of 10 Billion People, Global Warming and Other Eco-Myths, Competitive Enterprise Institute, Ronald Bailey, Editor, 2002, p. 40.

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